Background Highly publicised outbreaks of norovirus gastroenteritis in hospitals in the UK and Ireland and cruise ships in the USA sparked speculation about whether this reported activity was unusual. Methods We analysed data collected through a collaborative research and surveillance network of viral gastroenteritis in ten European countries (England and Wales were analysed as one region). We compiled data on total number of outbreaks by month, and compared genetic sequences from the isolated viruses. Data were compared with historic data from a systematic retrospective review of surveillance systems and with a central database of viral sequences. Findings Three regions (England and Wales, Germany, and the Netherlands) had sustained epidemiological and viral characterisation data from 1995 to 2002. In all three, we noted a striking increase in norovirus outbreaks in 2002 that coincided with the detection and emergence of a new predominant norovirus variant of genogroup II4, which had a consistent mutation in the polymerase gene. Eight of nine regions had an annual peak in 2002 and the new genogroup II4 variant was detected in nine countries. Also, the detection of the new variant preceded an atypical spring and summer peak of outbreaks in three countries. Interpretation Our data from ten European countries show a striking increase and unusual seasonal pattern of norovirus gastroenteritis in 2002 that occurred concurrently with the emergence of a novel genetic variant. In addition to showing the added value of an international network for viral gastroenteritis outbreaks, these observations raise questions about the biological properties of the variant and the mechanisms for its rapid dissemination.
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